Archive for June, 2014

14219545019_633d253233_mTwo teenage girls were found hanging from a mango tree outside an Indian village last week. They had been gang-raped after going out to the fields to defecate because their home lacked a toilet.

Such attacks are not uncommon. According to the Times of India, police in one district of Uttar Pradesh reckon 95% of rape and molestation cases take place when women and girls leave their homes to “answer a call of nature”.

Around the world there are more than 2.5bn people who lack any form of sanitation and have to go outdoors to openly defecate. This is more than an affront to human dignity; it’s a health hazard that has deadly consequences far beyond the rapacious behavior of sexually inadequate men.

One in 10 of the world’s illnesses can be traced to fecal-contaminated water, according to Rose George, author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.

For children the consequences are horrendous. Diarrhea kills more of them than AIDS, TB or malaria – one every 15 seconds. In the decade leading up to 2008, diarrhea deaths exceeded the total number of people killed by armed conflict since the Second World War. Simply put:

Food and water tainted with fecal matter results in 1.5 million child deaths every year. Most of these deaths could be prevented with the introduction of proper sanitation, along with safe drinking water and improved hygiene – Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Since George’s book was published in 2008, the Gates Foundation has put considerable financial weight behind reinvention of the toilet, challenging researchers and scientists to come up with ways of managing human waste and it’s a much harder challenge than you might think.

The requirements stipulated that the toilet had to:

  • Remove germs and recover valuable resources such as energy, clean water, and nutrients.
  • Operate “off the grid” without connections to water, sewer, or electrical lines.
  • Cost less than US$.05 cents per user per day.
  • Promote sustainable and financially profitable sanitation services and businesses that operate in poor, urban settings.
  • Be a next-generation product everyone would want to use – in developed as well as developing nations.

The winners were chosen last year and their efforts remain work in progress. While the initiative is welcome and promising, previous well-intentioned attempts to deliver decent sanitation in places like India and Africa have been abject failures.

George points out that just because latrines are provided it doesn’t mean that people will use them and when they do it can be in ways that are not expected or not appropriate. Changing a culture has to come from within, not be imposed and it requires long-term commitment and intensive on-the-ground effort to succeed.

Filthy conditions endured by people in slums may seem remote to those in the developed world, but there are good financial as well as humanitarian reasons why decent sanitation should concern us all.

According to the World Health Organization, improved sanitation delivers up to $9 in social and economic benefits for every $1 invested because it increases productivity, reduces healthcare costs, and prevents illness, disability, and early death.

More than that, there is the persistent fear of pandemic; slums with their poor hygiene and people living in close proximity to animals create an ideal pool for diseases to develop. But, according to  WHO, no country is safe where sanitation infrastructure is neglected.

In 2003, an outbreak of SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) in Hong Kong rapidly spread to 37 countries, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing 775. There have also been major alerts around bird flu and swine flu and currently, health officials in several countries – including the UK and US – are tackling Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a virus transmitted to humans from camels, which has infected more than 800 people, and killed over 300 of them.

Each year more than 2bn people fly between the world’s countries and along the way an estimated 10m will contract what is commonly known as the trots, the runs, Delhi Belly or Montezuma’s Revenge. On those same flights there will be people unwittingly aiding the rapid international spread of infectious agents and their vectors – and it’ll take more than Pepto-Bismol tablets to tackle the contagions.


14199693780_3186d91c7b_zThe Everything Store – Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
How ironic that the publisher of Brad Stone’s book on Jeff Bezos and his empire should be a division of Hachette, the group currently embroiled in a battle with Amazon over book prices.

It’s a war in which there will be only one winner – and it won’t be Hachette, despite an Amazon boycott call by one of its authors, the satirist and pundit Stephen Colbert.

Stone’s exhaustive research brings out the complexity of Bezos’ character, a brilliant visionary driven by the relentless pursuit of customer satisfaction – and a ruthless streak that will see him crush anything and anyone who gets in his way.

Like other tech gurus, the Amazon boss sees beyond the scope of less gifted rivals; he has both the imagination and creative flair to make things happen and an obsessive-compulsive grasp of detail to fashion the end product.

Recognizing genius is one thing, working alongside it quite another.

Bezos’ rants, known as “nutters” by staff, include delights such as: “Why are you wasting my life?” “This document was clearly written by the B team. Can someone get me the A team document? I don’t want to waste my time with the B team document.” And: “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”

“Jeffbot” disciples accept this as part of the missionary nature of their work. Others leave, or are booted out, in droves. But even those that leave recall their time as some of the most productive, exciting and challenging of their careers.

Missionary zeal rather than mercenary conquest is supposedly at the heart of the company’s aims. The paradox is the predatory monster which Bezos has created; it bites the hand that feeds it and comes back for more.

The question of how Amazon is perceived is one of the most interesting parts of the book. Bezos cares deeply about reputation. He wants his company to be more than just a giant corporation reliably delivering goods; he wants it to be recognized for delighting its customers, to be seen as cool and, above all, to be loved.

It’s here that Stone reveals a Bezos memo he received from an anonymous source inside the company. Titled, and sent to top executives attending a retreat, it sets out the founder’s thoughts on firms that are well-liked by their customers (Apple, Nike, Disney, Google, Whole Foods, Costco) and those that tend to be feared (Microsoft, Walmart, Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil).

Better still, Bezos analyses the qualities and values that define those held in high regard and includes things such as risk-taking, inventing, empowering and being authentic as attributes of coolness. On the other side of the coin, rudeness, defeating tiny guys, conquering, pandering and being mercenary are actions that relegate businesses to the uncool list.

The boss’s creed is commendable, the company’s execution questionable – and there’s a lot riding on the outcome: We all like convenience and low prices, we don’t like bullies.

Amazon is unveiling a new device in Seattle on June 18 and it has a great track record in the surprise and delight department. From its initial bet on the internet as a way to shop, through to the Kindle and cloud computing it has revolutionized many aspects of our lives. What comes next will shape its place in the loved or loathed columns and give us a steer towards its continued success in the longer term.

8010129003_aa442cfb0f_mClammy hands, cold sweats, constricted airways, dry throat, a queasy stomach – if you described the symptoms to a doctor he might diagnose the onset of a fever or worse.

The ailments have followed me through my working life and even though I’ve had to confront them on numerous occasions they still cause me discomfort.

They’re triggered by an anxiety about speaking in public, a skill for which many of us are ill-equipped and one that almost all of us are required to perform in our professional lives.

Many of those nervy feelings returned to me over the weekend as I listened to communications students at the University of Washington give 10-minute pitches on topics of their choosing.

Even though it wasn’t me doing the talking – I was there to judge and give feedback – the familiar fear took hold; it was as if the nervousness of the candidates was contagious and I had been re-infected.

Body language provides many clues to a speaker’s level of comfort and our subconscious minds are quick to distil signals of fear and uncertainty.

During the course of the day I saw many of the other factors that would determine whether the presenters took the audience with them or lost them along the way.

Confident public speaking is a gift given only to a few but it doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful public speaker, even if you’ll probably never enjoy it, so here are a few coping strategies from me and some pointers to achieve a successful outcome.

Confidence stems from ability Know what you want to say and practice, practice, practice how you plan to deliver it. If you’re incorporating media in your presentation, don’t read from your screen, don’t speak in the direction of your deck and don’t read information off your deck. You are the star. The audience has come to hear you talk. Face them. Make eye-contact with them but don’t stare – that’s creepy and disconcerting.

Stories are powerful Tell a story and distil your message to the one or two key points you want the audience to take away. Avoid the temptation to dazzle them with the breadth and depth of your knowledge. Information absorption decreases with overload and most of what you say will be forgotten within 24 hours. You can deal with secondary issues in a Q and A.

Make your speech appropriate for the audience you are addressing If your talk is full of insider jargon people will spend more time processing the information than comprehending it. Jargon by its very nature is exclusive and your aim is to be inclusive and readily understood.

Stand and deliver Great actors command a stage and you must do the same. Go to the venue ahead of time and familiarize yourself with the layout and the acoustics. Project your voice. Occupy the space, and by that I mean plant yourself firmly and stand tall. Don’t slouch, don’t fidget, don’t shift your weight from side to side, don’t look at your feet, the back of the hall or anywhere else to avoid eye contact. Don’t fold your arms, cross your legs or adopt the figleaf pose – unless you really do have to visit the bathroom.

Modulate your voice Try recording passages of your presentation and playing them back to yourself. What you hear in your head and what audiences receive are wholly different. I can put whole rooms to sleep with my monotone delivery so I try to adjust the pitch of my voice to maintain interest. Overdoing it will come across as unwarranted and phoney and people will tune out. Finally, if all your phrases sound like they end with a question mark, well, just stop it, it’s annoying. OK?

Pause for effect Anxiety has a tendency to make people talk faster partly as a way of conferring excitement and also as a way of getting the wretched business over and done with. The casualty here is comprehension. Slow down. You’re familiar with what you’re going to say because you’ve been over it multiple times. The audience hasn’t and they need a bit of time to absorb what you’re saying. When you make a key point or give out a killer statistic let it hang in the air for a second or two, it’ll help you gather yourself for your next segment and it’ll give the audience a brief respite.

Mixed messages Ask yourself whether you want people to listen to what you’re saying or to look at a slide that makes the point for you and makes it memorable for them; when the two are mismatched attention will wander. Don’t add an image for every point you want to make and don’t pack your deck with myriad graphs, charts and miniscule type. And please don’t read what everyone can see for themselves – the audience can skim over it faster than you can spit it out and they’ll be antagonized if you do.

Be brave Step out from behind the desk or podium and remove the barrier between you and the audience, it helps to foster an atmosphere of openness and confidence. Do move around and use occasional gestures to emphasize points you want to make, just don’t wave your arms around like an Italian traffic cop. And don’t pace up and down endlessly tracing and retracing your steps, you’ll come across like a caged animal.

Finally… Watch the clock. There’s nothing worse than a speaker who’s over-fond of the sound of their own voice. Learn to pace yourself and keep to time.

If you have other helpful tips for successful public speaking – or pet peeves to share – I’d love to hear them.